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EGENIS seminar: "Rethinking Epidemic Narratives: Combining Historical and Ecological Methods in the Anthropocene", Dr Emily Webster (Durham University)

Egenis seminar series

From spillover diseases to re-emerging infections to rising rates of antimicrobial resistance, microbes have proliferated daily conversation in recent years. These serious and continuing threats to human and nonhuman health fly in the face of triumphalist narratives of epidemiological transition and global disease eradication (Bellamy Foster et al., 2021). The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the extent to which these human-microbial interactions are mediated by ecological change widely construed, from urban and rural land use change driven by global commerce patterns to shifts in internal microbial populations within bodies.

Event details

Historians of disease and environment have, since before pandemic, highlighted the insufficiency of historical frameworks of disease for navigating these complexities, a critique which only accelerated in the wake of the pandemic (Breyfogle et al., 2016). And yet, very few of them have offered concrete interventions or alternatives to remedy methods of historical storytelling to better fit our evolving understanding of human-microbial relationships.

In this talk, I consider the value of interdisciplinary methods from public health and ecology in resolving some of these dissonances in the history of disease. In particular, I argue that Niche Construction Theory, an ecological concept prominent in philosophy of biology and evolutionary theory, offers a promising framework through which to examine human-microbial interactions . Looking to a paradigmatic case in the history of disease - an epidemic of typhoid fever in nineteenth-century Britain - and one “novel” area of research in the history of disease - the gut microbiome, and a disease that results from its dysbiosis - I argue that incorporating methods from other disciplinary frameworks better equipped to examine the contributions of non-human organisms to shared environments and consider their role in social, cultural, and ecological processes, can not only provide a much-needed alternative to existing practices in the history of disease, but allow for more nuanced and critical engagement with traditional historical sources and methods.

Venue: Byrne House

Virtual: via Zoom

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